Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 17:1–9): 1 [Jesus said:] “The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (ESV)
Imagine you are living 2,000 years ago and that you are the servant of a rich man. You have spent all day plowing in the fields. You are exhausted. But now it is time to come in for dinner. Back then, which do you think would be more likely for your master to say: “You’ve been working hard all day. Come at once and sit down for dinner” or “hey you, prepare dinner for me and wait on me as I eat, and then afterwards you can eat”? Well, of course, the master eats first, and the servant works with no sense of privilege or entitlement. The master does not even thank the servant because the servant only did what he was ordered to do. Our Lord Jesus actually tells this story in Luke’s Gospel to teach us what our proper attitude should be concerning our work in God’s kingdom. Our Lord concludes His parable by saying: So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).
After a lifetime of serving and loving others in Jesus’ Name, our only proper response is to say: [O Lord, we are [Your] unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty”. Just like when Martin Luther died—in his pocket was found a piece of paper on which was written: We are all beggars, this is true! A beggar has nothing of his own, he must live on what he receives from others. This absolutely describes our position toward God at all times, and that position will never change. We will never cease being beggars before God, for we have nothing good in ourselves. We are all beggars, and what good gifts we may receive, we receive from the hand of God. God richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support our earthly lives. And in our Saviour Jesus, God gives us what we need the most—deliverance from sin, death, and the devil, and also forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus’ Name. All this God does only out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us.
It is a very good thing for us to confess that we are unworthy servants, beggars before God, for then we are making a true confession that we are saved only by God’s grace, which we do not deserve, Yes, our salvation depends entirely upon God’s grace, God’s undeserved favour in Christ.
The people and things in a parable represent greater realities in the kingdom of heaven. In this parable the master stands for God. The first workers, who worked the whole day, stand for those Christians who came to faith early in life and who have devoted years of hard work in service to God. The last workers, those hired at the 11th hour, are those Christians who come to faith late in life and who have little time to serve. Finally, the denarius, the wage given, stands for eternal life in heaven.
In this parable, those who had been hired at the 11th hour of the day receive the same wage as those who had worked 12 hours. When the first workers observe this, they complain to the master, for they think they should then receive a higher wage. These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. The gist of their complaint was, “It’s not fair! You’re not fair! We, who worked twelve hours, DESERVE far more than those who only worked one hour.” This was the real problem with these first workers. They actually thought that they DESERVED better treatment because they had worked harder and longer. What we have here is an entitlement mentality.
In the world of the parable, as strange as it may seem to us, the wage given has nothing to do with the work done. Of course, that is not the way it is in the world. But in the kingdom of heaven, the wage given has nothing to do with the work done. It has everything to do with the goodness of the master, that is, God. For when questioned by a spokesman of the angry workers, the master calmly answered, Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? The word translated here as generosity literally means “good.” Notice that the giving of the denarius to the 11th hour workers depended totally on the master’s goodness. It is not that they deserved it. Rather, even though they did not deserve it, the master gave it anyway, purely out of his own goodness. In fact, the wage given to all the workers, including the first ones, depended totally on the master’s goodness.
The first workers thought they were worthy servants, that they deserved the wage and even more because they had worked the longest and hardest. But they were quite mistaken. God gave the same wage to those who worked only one hour, because the wage given did not depend on the work of the workers but on the goodness of the master.
This is a great danger and temptation to all Christians: to believe that the wage, that is, heaven, will be given to us, at least in part, because of our long, hard work in the Church. All Christians supposedly know and believe that they are saved by grace, by God’s undeserved favour, through faith in Christ apart from the works of the Law. And yet it is tempting to think, like those first workers, that we receive heaven at least partially as a reward for our service. But this entitlement mentality can easily lead to the loss of heaven. For when anyone believes that they are worthy servants, that they DESERVE the wage, heaven, because of their long, hard work, then they are in grave danger of losing the wage.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns those who believe that they are entitled to heaven because of their hard work in keeping God’s Law, that they are in danger of losing everything. He writes, You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace (5:4). The first workers were in danger of falling away from grace, for they thought they deserved a better wage because of their long hard work. “To fall away from grace”—those are among the saddest words in the world world. “To fall away from grace” describes those who think that somehow they are worthy of heaven.
This kind of damning, entitlement thinking is sometimes heard even in the conversations of Christians as they talk about a lifelong church member who has just died. “If anyone makes it into heaven, it will be him because he devoted his entire life to God and His Church. If anyone deserves to go to heaven it will be her, for she gave so much to charities and she taught Sunday School all those years.” I think you get the picture!
We all are sometimes tempted to think that our many works and our long years of service to God in the scorching heat of life somehow ENTITLE us to eternal life. Our long years of self-denial, all the worldly pleasures we skipped, all the countless hours spent reading the Bible and praying, all the many little things that have gone into a lifetime of Christian living and service—doesn’t all this make us worthy of something? Doesn’t it entitle us, at least in part, in some small way, to the reward of eternal life? And doesn’t it entitle us to receiving more than those who put off becoming Christians until just before death, those 11th hour converts?
No! In the kingdom of heaven no believer gets what he or she deserves. And thank God! For if we did, we would all be doomed. From God’s perspective what we deserve is eternal death. For we have failed to keep His holy Law and commandments. Not a day, not an hour goes by that we do not sin. Furthermore, apart from faith in Christ, even the works that we have done to serve God and our neighbour are sinful. As Isaiah puts it, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Apart from faith in Jesus, even our righteous works are sinful in God’s sight and would condemn us to hell.
But thanks be to God, God has given us faith in Christ and has brought us into the kingdom of heaven, so that we do not get what we so richly deserve. If we did get what we deserve, then we would get eternal death and we would be cut off from God forever. But through the cross of Jesus Christ, we have received through baptism and faith what we do not deserve. We have received God’s undeserved goodness and favour. That is what it means that we are saved by grace. It means that our receiving of the “wage” of heaven depends always and only on God’s undeserved goodness in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to give us heaven.
On the day he died, Martin Luther confessed we are all beggars; this is true. With these words, Luther acknowledged that he was saved not because of his life of faithful service but solely because of God’s grace and love in Christ. May we, in our living and in our dying, confess with Luther that we, too, are beggars who rely completely upon the grace of God. From the Church’s greatest teachers and leaders to the most simple-minded follower of Jesus, from lifelong Christians to 11th hour converts, we are all beggars. We are all equals—equals in deserving condemnation and equals in receiving God’s grace.
As God’s dear children, you and I find great joy to serving and loving in the Name of Jesus. But we do so remembering that the gift of heaven has nothing to do with the work we do in the Name of Christ. Rather, the gift of heaven has everything to do with God’s goodness and mercy. Put another way, our entrance into heaven does not ever depend on our work. Our entrance into heaven always depends only on God’s UNDESERVED goodness and kindness in Christ, HIS GRACE; for grace means God’s undeserved goodness or favour. Remember that this is a parable about God’s grace.
And in Christ Jesus, God is ever gracious to us beggars. What a wondrous God we have, who pours out His love and mercy so lavishly and generously upon us. The Father gave His only-begotten Son to rescue us from the clutches of sin, death, and death and to bring us safely to heaven. All that is needed for our salvation has been done by our Saviour Jesus. And now, He gives us the grace to endure and to persevere in the faith our whole lives long, trusting not in our service but in His mercy. Through His Holy Word and Supper, He forgives us all our sins and He renews us in the faith and He gives us the strength to endure and to persevere under life’s trials and temptations.
It is not what we do—not even our good works—but it is God’s doing that empowers us to live under God’s grace, to run the race of faith in Christ our whole lives long. Yes, God gives us the grace to remain in Christ, so that we cross the finish life in faith. It is not that we have done our best, for our best is never enough. Rather, it is that Christ comes to us when we fall and He picks us up and keeps us going. Our whole lives long, He give us the gift of confessing that we are His beggars, His unworthy servants who trust in Christ Jesus alone for our salvation. And then, when we die and stand before God our Father, by God’s grace, we will hear Him say: Well done, good and faithful servant.…Enter into the joy of your master (Matthew 25:23). And our Lord will place upon us the crown of His victory and He will honour us with an honour of which we are most unworthy: He Himself will seat us and serve us at His heavenly banquet. Thanks be to God, who—in Christ, who died to save us—gives us what we do not deserve—He gives us the gift of heaven!